Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On the Wisdom of 11-Year Olds and the Madness of Scientists

            A bit of background before we begin: I am currently teaching science at a Science, Teachnology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-themed summer camp.  The camp is a promotional tool for the school I now work for, a private school that is slated to accept its first classes of middle schoolers in 2012.  The students are an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of 25 young scientists from all over LA.  I’ll teach at two consecutive 3-week sessions; I am currently in my second week.

            On the first day of camp, along with various team-building games and typical camp stuff, we sorted the students into four groups, each named after a famous person from each of the respective STEM fields: Newton, Turing, Tesla, and Cantor.  We asked the groups to research their namesake and present their findings.  The goal was to encourage students to see scientists as human beings, rather than names or discoveries.  With Turing, we got even more than we bargained for – but more on that later.

            In college, I noticed the enormous disconnect between scientific discoveries and the actual process that creates them. Science is an exciting, vital enterprise, but the dry reporting of facts typical of a peer-reviewed paper or textbook belies the drama behind them.  Compare the white-knuckle race to discover the crystal structure of DNA to the way said structure is taught to children. 

I distinctly remember the first time it hit me during a college biology lecture: everything the professor was saying, down to the simplest statement, was built on hundreds of people and millions of hours of labor.  A fact like “the Golgi complex packages and secretes proteins” depends on the equipment pioneered by lens-grinders and alchemists, staining procedures developed by Golgi himself (and many others), not to mention the very concept of a “cell”, “protein”, and… you get the point, yes?

While I certainly don’t mean to suggest that science be taught like a historical melodrama – after all, the facts themselves do matter – we create an unnecessarily large gap between science students and scientists.  Once I realized the tremendous amount of struggle and passion that had gone into the driest of facts, I was far more motivated to join a lab and begin doing research – an experience that deepened my love for science.  The stereotype of scientists as loners who are either dull or crazed surely discourages some young people from entering the field. 

Consider, on a related note, the public perception of scientists.  I asked my class, on Day 1, to draw the first thing that came to mind when I said “scientist,” then share their drawings.  Close to three-quarters drew Einstein.   Not surprise, since Albert represents our idealized scientist: white, male, kindly, placid, asexual.  [Sidenote – I piled on the cheese by telling the class all they had to do to see a scientist was look in the mirror.  A bit heavy-handed, sure, but they’re kids]  Next, we brainstormed adjectives that described the popular conception of scientists; again, not surprisingly, “evil” was tossed out.  When I asked the class why, one girl volunteered that perhaps “we are afraid of what they can create.”  I chuckled to myself at that one.  For many, including me, the destructive capacity of science is part of its terrible draw; I feel compelled to discover more even when I know that, both as a society and an individual, knowing more doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, and often leads to the opposite.

But my psychological profile aside, my point for Day 1 was that scientists are real people, united by little more than a desire to know.  As I told my class, yes; many scientists didn’t do so well in school as children, but to the extent that, e.g. Einstein ditched class, it was to play violin, not play video games.  He grew his brain.  “Father of Neuroscience” Santiago Ramón y Cajal didn’t use a slingshot to cause boyhood mischief, he built a cannon and blew up his town gate.  And don’t even get me started on my hero, the wonderfully exuberant Richard Feynman, who in addition to making some groundbreaking discoveries in theoretical physics, went on a series of wild adventures including moving to Brazil for an extended period to join a samba band.  It’s not all lab coats and pocket protectors.

Note that I don’t mean to totally deny the various stereotypes about scientists.  Many do work more or less alone (although that number is shrinking); many are awkward; some are asexual [paging Nikola Tesla]; some are completely bats.  David Foster Wallace’s biography of the mathematician (and one of our science camp groups’ namesakes) Georg Cantor explains this well.  Popular biographies of scientists or philosophers who went crazy – think Cantor, Nietzsche, or even chess grandmasters like Fischer – tend to focus on individual events in their lives.  Take Cantor (supposedly) being driven mad by the criticism of his contemporary Kronecker.  But on a larger scale, Wallace argues more eloquently than I ever could, it’s difficult to live with a certain degree of abstraction.  Those laymen with an affinity for discussing physics know what I’m talking about – the sort of derealization, the disorienting “zooming out” from oneself that accompanies a debate about Schrödinger’s cat, the possibility that the universe is a 2-D holographic projection or that the whole world just sprang into existence a moment ago – and how one needs to “snap back” into oneself before resuming normal life.  It’s taxing to think too much, and I’m not suggesting we sugarcoat that fact.

So anyway, scientists are real people, and knowing them can serve as a supplement to, but of course not a replacement for, familiarity with their work.  As promised several paragraphs ago, one group of students in grade 5-7 were assigned to research the life of computer scientist Alan Turing, a man whose work is difficult to divorce from his circumstances.  See, after Einstein and Oppenheimer, Turing was perhaps the scientist most instrumental to the Allied victory in WWII, as England’s top code-breaker.  He then went on to create fundamental concepts such as the algorithm and invent what became the basis of the modern computer, before England unceremoniously turned on him because he was gay.  After being chemically castrated for the “crime” of homosexuality (in 1952!  Good grief!), he took his own life by eating an apple injected with cyanide. 

And bless their hearts, the middle schoolers got it.  When presenting on Turing’s life, a girl got up and said “some people didn’t like him because he was different – because of who he wanted to love, and because that wasn’t considered okay at the time.  Maybe they were just scared of what he could do, because he was so ahead of his time.  But they attacked him for who he was and he poisoned himself, and we lost a genius.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, Turing represents the extreme end of what happens when a society decides to limit its idea of who a scientist is.  No, Turing wouldn’t be persecuted in modern England, but equally tragic is the staggering number of students who grow up loving science, and watch that love get extinguished as they grow up.  “I could never be a scientist because I’m ___________.”  While in the past (and maybe today, too), that blank might have been filled with “a woman” or “Black” or etc.  Gender, race, and so on aside, that blank might now be filled with “not boring.”  Science is not about textbooks, it’s about mischievous Ramón y Cajals and Feynmans.  And I am a firm believer that, while we shouldn’t dispense with textbooks and lectures, we should treat them as a compliment to breaking things, dissecting things, building things, and generally making a mess – or in other words, “science.”